Saturday, 22 June 2013

Tyres, Tests and Tribunals

Over the past few weeks there has been the traditional mid-season controversy among the F1 community. This time, the drama was centred around the Mercedes team and tyre suppliers Pirelli. Over the course of the season, tyres have played a large role in the outcome of the races. Drivers are reporting that they can't drive their cars to their full potential because the tyres tend to give up very quickly. Several teams are reporting that they simply can't make the tyres work properly over the course of a race. While tyres have always played a role in racing, a lot of fans and officials believe that they are now impacting far too much, and something has to change.

However, as ever in F1, nothing is straightforward. Some of the teams tend to be better of their tyres than others - Lotus, for example, tend to be pretty good - and so are largely opposed to any changes. By contrast, other teams are calling for reviews of the tyres - Red Bull being chief among these, as they feel they simply can't run the car flat out. One team that has been suffering quite heavily in the races because of the tyres is Mercedes. While they tend to be very good in qualifying, during the races they tend to fall away and lose pace.

With the ban on in-season testing, ultimately all of the teams are in the same boat. The tyres will remain the same, and it's up to individual teams to solve the problems however they can. Of course, it would be better if the teams had some way of testing the tyres outside of a race weekend, but the rules clearly stipulate that such testing is banned.

Or so you'd think. It turns out that Mercedes had been approached by Pirelli to conduct a 1,000 kilometre tyre test following the Spanish grand prix. The news of this test, however, only broke before the Monaco grand prix race day. Naturally, many teams were unhappy with the opportunity given to Mercedes, and were even unhappier with the fact that the test was conducted apparently in secret. The leaders of the complaints were the leading teams - Red Bull and Ferrari, who called for an enquiry to find out the details of the test. As the details emerged, it was discovered that Mercedes had not only had 1,000km of running, they did so with the 2013 car and with both current drivers (rather than a test driver).

Mercedes naturally defended the test, and stated that they did not get any data from the running as they did not know which tyres were being used. However, I find this a little suspicious, given the choice to use a current car and current drivers. With the usual F1 waving of fingers came counter-accusations by Mercedes - Ferrari had also ran a Pirelli test, and thus they should also be implicated in the apparently illegal activity.

Following the Monaco race, the case was referred to the stewards. On investigation, it emerged that yes, Ferrari had also taken part in a tyre test. However, the critical difference was that Ferrari had used a 2011 car - a two-year-old car being permissible within the sporting regulations. So, it was only the activities of Mercedes that were called into question, and the case was referred to an international tribunal which sat last Thursday.

During the tribunal, Mercedes defended the test, stating that it was a legal test, as it was undertaken by Pirelli, rather than Mercedes. This seemed to be a weak defence in my view - if a team is running a current car with current drivers, then it's clearly not completely down to Pirelli. Pirelli further argued that as a third-party supplier, they were able to do whatever they liked (in essence), as they were not subject to the FIA regulations. This argument was (thankfully) rejected - surely everyone involved in F1 should be subject to the regulations, or else all teams would be queueing up to help Pirelli test their tyres.

A further point raised by the tribunal was the secrecy of the test. Mercedes claimed to have permission from the FIA to conduct the test. The FIA responded by stating that Mercedes had phoned Charlie Whiting to ask in 'general terms' whether a tyre test with a current car would be legal. Whiting had responded by stating that in theory, yes, it would be possible, but only on the condition that all of the other teams had been informed and offered the same opportunity - hardly a resounding 'yes, go ahead'. Following these phone calls, Mercedes went ahead with the test, without informing the FIA of their intentions.

Perhaps one of the more amusing points of the tribunal surrounded the secrecy of the drivers. Mercedes had given Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton black helmets to disguise their identities. This was apparently for 'security reasons', given the lack of bodyguards at the circuit for the test. However, this begs the question of what the drivers did when they were out of the cars - did they wander around like Top Gear's Stig in full race gear until they could get away from the clearly hostile and dangerous environment of the circuit? I doubt it.

Once all the evidence had been heard, the verdict was announced the following day. Given that Mercedes had used a current car (rather than an old car, as in the case of Ferrari), had not gained explicit permission from the FIA and had kept the test secret from the other teams, the obvious decision was a guilty verdict. As with other scandals of F1 in the past, we were all expecting harsh penalties - points being taken away from the team, fines, possibly race bans. But no. Mercedes simply gained a reprimand, and were prevented from taking part in the young driver's test later in the year. Now, in my opinion, the only people that this 'punishment' will hurt will be the young drivers. Mercedes have at least potentially gained an advantage from the test, and have 1,000km more experience under their belts than the other teams. A clear breach of the rules was seen, and this was unpunished.

I wonder now whether other big teams will get in on tyre testing. It appears as though the only sacrifice will be running in the young drivers test - something that the big teams really do not need to worry about if their big name drivers stay on for 2014. Often in F1 teams tend to try and copy one another following investigations and tribunals - look at the number of investigations of Red Bull's aerodynamics over the previous years. While people complained that sporting regulations had been breached, the subsequent approval of the aerodynamics led to the other teams adopting the same technology. Thus, with the 'punishment' for 1,000 km tyre tests set, will this be a case of 'if you can't beat them, join them'?